We’ve all seen the advertisements featuring sad-looking children as part of foster carer recruitment campaigns.
They reflect an on-going shortage of foster parents – with the latest figures suggesting a UK-wide shortfall of 8,500.
Yet local authorities and fostering agencies are ignoring a large pool of people with unique experience of overcoming obstacles and a particular insight into facing life’s difficulties.
A report published today, Mutual Benefits: The Potential of Disabled People as Foster Carers, concludes that thousands of disabled people could help relieve the long-standing recruitment crisis in the sector – if only they are given the chance.
It is based on surveys, accessibility audits and workshops with four fostering agencies and 21 disabled foster parents. That work was a partnership between the University of Worcester, the disabled people’s organisation Shaping Our Lives and the Foster Care Co-operative.
During the two-year project we were inspired by the disabled foster carers we spoke to but disappointed by the obvious hurdles they had faced and the attitudes and structures that prevent others following their example.
The barriers are present throughout the fostering application process and are entrenched through failures in national and local government policies and systems. For example, although Ofsted quite rightly collects data on the age and ethnic profile of foster carers there is no such information-gathering on the recruitment of disabled people – who make up 19% of the working age population.
We found discriminatory attitudes based on largely unfounded concerns – for example, some staff believed that fostered children could become de facto carers for disabled foster carers.
The workshops we held helped address such attitudes. Agency staff began to acknowledge that disabled people face unnecessary barriers – such as inaccessible buildings, information systems and support structures – that could be easily addressed at little or no cost. Foster agency websites do not often mention disabled foster parents and rarely have positive images of disabled foster parents.
They also recognised that disabled people’s life experiences equip them with significant skills that can be important in fostering. These include empathy, understanding and awareness of disability and discrimination, overcoming adversity and resilience.
Yet the disabled foster parents we worked with confirmed the impact of attitudinal and structural barriers. Some spoke about feeling ‘pushed aside’.
Others made powerful points about how disabled people could offer particular insights and inspiration for children and young people preparing to cope with the often tough world they will eventually enter as young adults.
John observed: ‘We have an added set of skills, finely tuned over many years of just having to get it done regardless of the difficulty.’
Jane, who was rejected by one fostering agency but is now caring for a child, said: ‘For me fostering is not necessarily all about the physical side, helping children…getting them washed, dressed…walking them to school… It’s the emotional side and the understanding of how and why the children actually behave the way they do.’
As well as recommendations around diversity training and other issues aimed at fostering agencies, our report has recommendations for local authorities, Ofsted and the government. These include:
- Councils should only approve fostering agencies which demonstrate their commitment to the inclusion of disabled foster carers
- Ofsted should monitor/gather data across fostering agencies by disability/impairment
- Department of Work and Pensions guidance should state that fostering falls within its Access to Work provisions and provide specific guidance for advisors and assessors
- Central government should fund a recruitment campaign targeting potential disabled foster carers to reduce the shortfall in foster placements and provide better choices for children and young people in need of care.
Our work suggests that much-needed cultural change must start with disability awareness training for social workers and fostering agency staff – preferably delivered by disabled people. That will provide the basis for a proactive recruitment and marketing campaign by councils and agencies, supporting the national effort we also recommend.
After all, current practices suggest there are wide-scale breaches of the Equality Act – which requires service providers to avoid direct and indirect discrimination of disabled people in recruitment, selection and support services.
Taking action might also just mean less work for the models paid to depict those sad-eyed children we see in fostering recruitment campaigns.
Dr Peter Unwin is principal lecturer in social work at the University of Worcester. The project was supported by a grant from the £5 million DRILL programme (Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning) – the first user-led disability research programme in the world. DRILL is fully funded by The National Lottery Community Fund